MELBOURNE - The killing of construction workers in Nduga, and the Indonesian security force’s subsequent military operations, impact quite differently on the politics of the Papua–Indonesia conflict.
It is contested whether the 16 construction workers were unarmed civilians or members of the security forces but the event on 2 December 2018 marked a departure from the predominantly peaceful, political struggle for independence developed since 2000.
In terms of numbers of those killed, it was the largest attack in recent years.
Over the past two decades, the narrative of human rights abuses by the Indonesian security forces in Papua has been one of the most effective strategies of the independence movement, both within Indonesia and in international diplomacy.
The killing of the construction workers weakens this narrative. The military operations since the killings in early December fall into the more familiar pattern of security force operations against the pro-independence groups and the communities in which they live.
The construction team attacked in early December was engaged in President Joko Widodo’s signature infrastructure development project of the Trans Papua Road.
The targeting of this project was not a coincidence. It represented Indonesia’s development program in Papua and the military’s involvement therein.
Lukas Enembe, the recently re-elected Governor of Papua, understood the armed pro-independence groups in Nduga associated the road building project with the military, seeing it as part of the campaign against them.
Following the killing of the construction workers, President Jokowi ordered the military and police to seek out and destroy the armed resistance in the remote and poverty-stricken highland district of Nduga.
The president had previously identified Nduga as the focus and motivation of his commitment to develop Indonesia’s poorest province. He affirmed the killings will not deter him from the commitment to develop Papua.
The killings of the construction workers and the military operations against the armed resistance highlight the cycle of violence that has characterised Indonesia’s administration of Papua.
While there has been a cycle of violence, in military terms, the conflict between the armed pro-independence groups and the Indonesian security forces is highly asymmetrical, with the overwhelming predominance of military capacity being with the Indonesian security forces.
The military are crucial in the maintenance of Indonesian control of Papua, its governance and development strategies.
John Martinkus and Mark Davis reported in The Saturday Paper that the Indonesian military were conducting a major military operation including the use of what appeared to be white phosphorus bombs, chemical weapons banned under international law.
The Indonesian department of foreign affairs has vigorously denied this accusation: “The allegation highlighted by the said media is totally baseless, non-factual, and gravely misleading. Indonesia possesses no chemical weapons.”
An independent military authority consulted for this article considered that the victims’ burns discussed and Illustrated in The Saturday Paper article and in photographs circulated on social media are consistent with the use of white phosphorus bombs.
He also questioned the explanation by the military spokesman in Papua that, because these bombs are used over long distances and cause widespread devastation, the destruction would have been greater than depicted in the photographs.
The same military spokesman confirmed the grenades in the photographs from Nduga were of the type used by the Indonesian military.
Colonel Muhammad Aidi’s statement to the Papua-based media provided insights into the difficulties the military confronted in its operations in Nduga.
It is difficult to distinguish the ‘armed criminals’ – the pro-independence fighters in the military’s terminology – from ordinary members of the community. Few people have identity papers in Nduga. An ‘armed criminal’, he argued, could be dressed up as a local government official, member of the local council or a human rights activist.
The military operations in Nduga have served to unite and mobilise different segments of the Papuan elite – elected politicians, community, human rights and church leaders and the independence activists – against Indonesia.
The on-going operations in Nduga have stirred up the collective traumatic memories of earlier military operations, especially those in 1977 and in 1996, and have galvanised hostility in Papuan society against the military.
It should be noted that President Jokowi’s rival in this year’s election, former General Prabowo Subianto, earnt his reputation for human rights abuse in the 1996 campaign in neighbouring Mapnduma.
Governor Lukas Enembe urged President Jokowi to withdraw Indonesia’s military and police forces from the district of Nduga, so that Papuans could celebrate Christmas in peace. Enembe publicly recognised the demand for Independence was long-standing and needed to be addressed by the Indonesian government.
Lukas Enembe’s call for the security forces to be withdrawn from Nduga has the support of the Provincial Parliament. The governor and parliament also decided to establish an investigation team of the parliament, churches and community leaders.
The governor’s appeal was also supported by a Coalition of 41 civil society organisations, including the major human rights groups, in Papua.
Papuan church leaders go further than the governor and parliament to support the demand made by the pro-independence groups for the government to hold a dialogue to resolve the conflict in Papua. The churches do not support the killing of the construction workers, but they do endorse an international dialogue with the involvement of the UN.
Dr Benny Giay, the head of the Kingmi Church, which has significant congregations in Nduga, respects President Jokowi’s endeavours in Papua, but asserts that these do not address Papua’s basic needs.
“We want the resolution of all the problems in Papua from 1962 to 2018, including the various forms of violence and human rights abuses that have not been resolved until now,” he said.
Few of the pro-independence groups support the killing of the construction workers, but the demand for an international dialogue with the involvement of the UN is an objective that unites the churches and civil society leaders with the independence activists.
While the governor’s call for the withdrawal of the security forces from Nduga was strongly supported by civil society, it was rejected by the military command in Papua. A spokesman for the military command, Colonel Muhammad Aidi, argued that the governor, as the representative of the central government and the Indonesian state, has responsibilities to defend rather than oppose national policy.
The governor had sought to ban the security forces from conducting what the military considered its duty to protect society and defend the unity of the state. Through the military’s prism, the governor was viewed as a spokesman for the Papuan independence struggle.
Enembe was caught awkwardly between the opposing pressures of his constituents, who expected him to protect them against the abuses of security forces, and the provincial military leadership, who asserted that the governor’s principal duty was to defend national policy and the nation state.
As these events continue to unfold it is too early to anticipate whether the killing of the construction workers and the subsequent military operations can act as a circuit breaker for the cycle of violence and the national policy impasse on Papua.
In the middle of Indonesia’s presidential election campaign, it is naïve to imagine that governor Enembe’s appeal to withdraw the security forces from Nduga could lead to the sort of substantial withdrawal of Indonesian security forces from Papua that helped bring about peace in Indonesia’s other intractible regional conflict in Aceh.
Richard Chauvel is an academic in the Asia Institute of The University of Melbourne